4. Grammar and Bias-Free Language
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APA style follows rules for grammar and bias-free language in order to create clear communication of thoughts and ideas. The main grammar rules are as follows:
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to inanimate objects or nonhuman animals. This style of writing should be avoided when writing in APA style. For example, when discussing rats in an enclosure, you would describe them as "rat pairs" and not "rat couples" because the word couple implies a human romantic relationship.
When using comparisons in APA style writing, they should be clear with no room for misinterpretation due to sentence structure. For example, an illogical comparison would be:
You have higher odds of being struck by lightning than a shark.
This sentence could have two possible interpretations: you are more likely to be struck by lightning than struck by a shark, or you are more likely to be struck by lightning than a shark is.
This illogical comparison can be fixed in two ways, depending on the intent of the sentence. To imply the first meaning, you can add a "by" before "a shark".
You have higher odds of being struck by lightning than by a shark.
To imply the second meaning, you can include a verb for shark (does) and move the shark earlier in the sentence to emphasize its comparison with "you".
You have higher odds than a shark does of being struck by lightning.
APA style suggests certain verb tenses for different types of writing. It is important that the verb tense in a paragraph and adjacent paragraphs. Below is a table from the American Psychological Association denoting which tenses should be used, when.
Active and Passive Voice
In APA style, both active and passive voice is permitted for use, but oftentimes the passive voice is overused.
The relationship between a verb and the subject and object associated with it in which the subject of the sentence is followed by the verb and then the object.
Ex. "The researchers counted the participants"
The relationship between a verb and the subject and object associated with it in which the object of the verb is followed by the verb and then the subject.
Ex. "The participants were counted by the researchers."
Active voice should be used as often as possible, as it communicates clearly and concisely what is being said. Passive voice should be reserved for when the focus is is on the recipient of the action rather than the one who performed the action.
First-person pronouns should be used in APA to describe your work and your personal reactions. When writing the paper by yourself, use "I" to refer to yourself; when writing the paper with co-authors, use "we" to refer to yourself and your co-authors.
Do NOT refer to yourself in the third person when writing in APA. It is tempting to do so because it may sound more scholarly, but it can create ambiguity for the readers about who completed the action: you or someone else.
You should also avoid using "we" to discuss people in general. Instead, specify the meaning of "we"-- who exactly is the "we" you speak of? Researchers? College students? People of some other group? By adding a specification to the beginning of the sentence, the target of the sentence can be clarified easily.
As college students, we often do not have enough time to get an adequate amount of sleep.
To be inclusive of all people and to avoid making assumptions about the gender of someone, APA style has adopted the use of singular "they" as a generic third-person singular pronoun. Always use a person's self-identified pronoun, including "they" used as a singular pronoun. Also use "they" as a generic third-person pronoun instead of "he", "she", or variations of "s/he"-- only use the pronouns "he" or "she" if you know that these pronouns match the person being written about and variations of "s/he" are to never be used. If using the singular "they" is awkward, try rewording the sentence so that pronouns do not have to be used.
Along with having rules for grammar, APA style has guidelines for how to write with bias-free language. Bias-free language allows for writing to be precise, an essential quality of scholarly writing. Words should always be chosen so that they are accurate, clear, and free from bias and prejudiced connotations. For example, do not use "man" to refer to humankind, instead choose a word like "individuals" or "people" to be more inclusive.
Bias-free language includes the following elements:
- A focus on relevant characteristics. While it is possible to describe aspects of a person like age, disability, gender identity, participation in research, racial and ethnic identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and other characteristics without bias, they are not always details necessary to the narrative being told. Care should be taken when selecting what to report about and when multiple characteristics are reported, there should be a discussion about how they intersect.
- When differences are relevant to the writing, their existence should be acknowledged. The meaning of "difference" should be analyzed in relation to the target group, not the dominant group.
- Once it has been decided what characteristics are being reported, you should be appropriately specific. Terms used to describe characteristics should not be used without good reason, but when in doubt, choose to be more specific. In order to facilitate this, consider the appropriate level of specificity when designing your research, as it is very hard, if not impossible, to gather more specific data once the study is underway.
- When writing about age, use exact ages or age ranges (e.g. 18-22, 35-65) instead of broad categories. Also, include age mean and median to increase specificity.
- When writing about disability, use names of conditions (e.g. Alzheimer's) instead of categories or saying "people with disabilities".
- When writing about gender identity, descriptors with modifiers (e.g. cisgender women, transgender women) are more specific than using general descriptors (e.g. women) or general non-gendered terms.
- When writing about people who took part in research, use terms that indicate the context of the research (e.g patient, participant, client, etc.) instead of general terms (e.g. people, women, etc.).
- When writing about racial or ethnic groups, use the nation or region of origin (e.g. Korean Americans, Mexican Americans) instead of a generalized origin (e.g. Asian Americans, Latin Americans).
- When writing about sexual orientation, use the names of people's orientations (e.g. lesbians, gay men, bisexual people, straight people) instead of broad group labels (e.g. gay).
- When writing about socioeconomic status, use income ranges of specific populations (e.g. below the federal poverty threshold for a family of four) instead of general labels (e.g. low-income).
- Be sensitive to labels, respect the language which people use to describe themselves and accept that language changes with time and individuals within a group may not agree with the language being used. The best way to do so is to ask the participants of your study what they prefer to be called and the language they prefer to be used to describe them or reach out to self-advocacy groups that represent these communities.
- Note that some people do refer to themselves using slurs or stigmatizing language and researchers should use extreme caution before repeating this language, as it can spread and promote that stigma.
- Acknowledge people's humanity when choosing terms and labels. Terms and labels should emphasize that you are talking about people and should avoid using adjectives as nouns (e.g. "the poor") or equate the person with the label (e.g. "schizophrenics" or "drug users"). Instead, use language like "gay men", "people living in poverty", or "people who use drugs".
- Some groups have chosen to use a capitalized label to promote unity and community, like the Deaf. In this circumstance, use the label that the community uses, even when the label is adjectival.
- The language surrounding disability is ever-evolving, so there are some cases where people disagree about what is preferred. When writing about disability, person-first language, identity-first language, or both may be acceptable depending on the group. As stated previously, reach out to self-advocacy groups or ask your participants if you are even slightly unsure of what label to use.
- Avoid writing false hierarchies into your narrative. False hierarchies occur when you describe one group as "normal" as then the assumption is that the other group is "abnormal" which stigmatizes those with differences. An example of this is contrasting "lesbians" with "the general population" as it marginalizes lesbians. A more appropriate way to depict this contrast is to use "straight individuals" or other variations of a specific label. The same format should be used for racial and ethnic minorities
- The order in which groups are presented in a sentence also can imply that the group mentioned first is the standard and that the second is deviant (e.g. White Americans and racial minorities). The same can be said for placing socially dominant groups like men or White people over other groups in tables or on the left side of graphs may also imply that these groups are the standard. Be thoughtful in the way you choose to present groups-- alphabetically or in order by sample size are good options-- and be consistent throughout your paper.
For more information on using bias-free language, please visit https://apastyle.apa.org/style-grammar-guidelines/bias-free-language